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Bears finally may have perfect safety match

By Vaughn McClure, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Before coming to the Bears, free safety Chris Conte was somewhat familiar with Mike Brown. Then last season as a rookie, Conte got a history lesson — courtesy of safeties coach Gill Byrd — about what Brown truly meant to the franchise.

“Coach Byrd, he has these Mike Brown highlights,” Conte explained, “and showed us clips of Brown stripping the ball and making big plays. Then Coach Byrd said, ‘This is the way we want our guys to play.’

“I just know that Mike Brown was a great player and great at taking the ball away. We try to look at a guy like that and emulate his play. We’re trying to get to the level where we’re respected in the same way Mike Brown was respected.”

It will be hard to live up to those standards, but at least Conte and fellow starter Major Wright have made some forget safety was supposed to the defense’s weakest link. The duo has combined for four interceptions — three from Wright — through four games. Conte, who wears a harness to protect the right shoulder he dislocated during preseason, has improved his tackling, as his team-leading 28 tackles would indicate. Both safeties have taken better tackling angles and played smarter football this season.

Of more importance, Wright and Conte have started all four games together, the type of continuity the secondary sorely needed. The Bears are 7-3 over the last two seasons with Wright and Conte as starters. It’s worth noting Jay Cutler (thumb surgery) missed two of those losses.

“I know the safety position has been discussed so much on the amount of different combinations that we have around here,” coach Lovie Smith said. “(And) I know that we like the two that we have right now.”

In Smith’s first game in September 2004, Brown and Mike Green were his starting safeties. Entering this season, the Bears had changed their starting strong safety 31 times and their starting free safety 25 times under Smith. Last year alone, the Bears had seven starting combinations.

Conte and Wright both were third-round picks, but Conte never felt added pressure because of his draft status.

“I know the guys they’ve drafted, and I know I was one in the long line of safeties,” Conte said. “But I don’t really go back. I just try to worry about what I can do to keep my job. Hopefully, they like the way we’re playing, we can both continue to improve and they’ll keep us around here for a while.”

The Bears have drafted eight safeties under Smith. Three are on the active roster, with another on injured reserve. Two are out of football — including Chris Harris, who made a cameo at a Chicago night club as a DJ while awaiting another opportunity.

And two have established new homes in the same AFC division.

Going south

Safety Danieal Manning, the Bears’ second-round pick in the 2006 draft, gambled in free agency after the 2009 season and landed a four-year, $20 million contract ($9 million guaranteed) with the Texans. Now he starts for arguably the league’s best team.

He’s not the only former Bears safety playing in the AFC South.

Manning started nine games alongside rookie strong safety Al Afalava in 2009. Afalava was a sixth-round draft pick from Oregon State and was the talk of the preseason that year. But he didn’t make the final cut after his second preseason with the Bears.

Now, Afalava plays special teams for the Titans, and he regrets how things unfolded with the Bears.

“I learned that being on the sideline ain’t going to get you a job in the NFL,” Afalava said Thursday. “I didn’t come in prepared my second year.

“Before my second year, I went home to Hawaii and put on weight that I wasn’t supposed to. I was close to 240 pounds after playing as rookie at 212. I was just living the life back home. Hawaii has good food.”

Afalava also has to contend with a nagging shoulder injury. He suffered nerve damage in his shoulder during the final exhibition game of his rookie season. He then reinjured the shoulder in the eighth game against the Cardinals.

“I think I had to take a shot of Toradol before every game,” Afalava said. “I was battling that shoulder injury, then I come in overweight the next season.

“But I knew what was coming after that. I was at the bottom of the depth chart, and I knew I was the odd safety out. But I learned a lot from Coach Byrd, from Coach (Jon Hoke), from Coach Lovie. I loved the Bears coaches. It’s just my second year, I didn’t really care.”

Different perspective

Adam Archuleta cared, and maybe he shouldn’t have.

The former Bears safety cared about the outside opinions forming around him. He cared about the criticism and took it to heart.

“I made a lot of mistakes in my career, and I think that was one of them,” Archuleta said Thursday. “I really let outside factors — especially after my time with the Redskins — get the best of me.

“If you want to be a great player, you can never let those outside influences distract you from doing your job and doing what you’re paid to do and born to do. That’s to go out and give it your best and play your best.”

Archuleta spent the 2007 season in Chicago after the Bears traded a sixth-round pick to the Redskins for him. Smith was the Rams defensive coordinator when they drafted Archuleta in the first round, so a reunion was expected to revive Archuleta’s career.

It didn’t.

He started 10 of the 15 games he played and didn’t have much of an impact. He suffered a broken hand in a Week 3 loss to the Cowboys at Soldier Field.

He was paid $5.1 million for his one season as a carry-over from the six-year, $30 million contract he signed with the Redskins in 2006 — the highest paid contract for a safety at the time.

“I felt like things were going really well — and then the Dallas game came,” Archuleta said. “We lost Mike Brown (ACL) in the first game at San Diego, so he’s done. And then I break my hand. I started to lose confidence in my ability to tackle. Because of the way our secondary was, I felt a lot of pressure. And quite honestly, I didn’t perform the way I needed to.”

Archuleta doesn’t want to make excuses for his collapse in Chicago, but there was another factor he believed contributed to his poor play. He suffered at least three concussions before joining the Bears, and the team was aware of his concussion history. Archuleta believes he sustained another concussion the night he was injured against the Cowboys.

“The play that I broke my (right) hand, I got blasted on a crackback by (then-Cowboys receiver) Sam Hurd, and it was like a de-cleat shot,” Archuleta said. “It was like a huge blow. I remember the next day, Lovie said, ‘We didn’t think you’d be able to play after that.’ And I think I suffered a concussion right there. I don’t think I was the same player the rest of the season.”

Archuleta, now out of the NFL, is an analyst for Pac-12 games and will do United Football League games for CBS. He relishes the role of critiquing other safeties rather than having his own play dissected. But Archuleta still keeps a watchful eye on the NFL, and the Bears.

“It’s much more of a passing game now,” Archuleta said. “The way teams are spreading it out, you have to really, really be good in space. The thing is, the guys who are good in space are not always the best tacklers in the run game. If you can find guys to do both, then you have something.”

The Bears hope that’s exactly what they have in Conte and Wright.

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